The Creative Music Improvisers Forum: New Haven's AACM

Daniel Barbiero By

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In all, The Sky Cries the Blues presents an ensemble playing music embodying an ambitious admixture of modernist art music's harmonic vocabulary, the forceful expressivity of avant-garde jazz improvisation, and the polyrhythmic textures of African and South Asian musics. These elements are present as well in Smith's "Two Pieces for Orchestra Set No. 3," performed in concert in December, 1982. The main melodic themes are based on pentatonic scales with a distinctly non-Western flavor, while the orchestral parts supporting the soloists feature dense, chromatic harmonies and complex blends of instrumental color. Here once again, the composed and improvised elements are set up in a fruitful relationship of correspondence and mutual illumination.

The concert at which "Two Pieces for Orchestra Set No. 3" was presented was held to mark the fifth anniversary of the New Haven collective. The concert, which was sponsored by the Hartford Jazz Society, took place on 5 December 1982 at the Hartford Holiday Inn on Morgan Street and was notable for its having brought together CMIF and AACM—a meeting of two branches of the same musical family, in a sense. The ensemble for the occasion was billed as a 25-piece orchestra composed of sixteen members of CMIF plus members of AACM; representing the latter organization were Muhal Richard Abrams, Amina Claudine Myers and Leroy Jenkins, as well as Anthony Braxton—who by the mid-1980s would himself be resident in the New Haven area. In addition to featuring music by Smith, Naughton, Hemingway, Abrams and Braxton, the concert—in a kind of echo of the 1975 concert that provided the early impetus out which CMIF was formed—included arrangements of compositions by Duke Ellington.

The CMIF/AACM joint concert was just one of many concerts and performances that the New Haven group presented during its seven year existence. As with the joint concert, some featured invited work by non-CMIF artists such as Carla Bley, Slide Hampton and Randy Weston. A particularly ambitious presentation—the '81 Autumn Fest—took place over the course of nine days in October and November, 1981 and was held at venues in the Connecticut cities of Bridgeport, Litchfield and Waterbury in addition to New Haven and Hartford. Underwritten in part by the National Endowment for the Arts, this series of concerts featured CMIF's Creative Improvisors Orchestra as well as performances by individual members under their own names, and also included outside artists such as Peter Kowald, Henry Threadgill, and Fred Hopkins. In the Cadence interview Fonda even recalled one memorable program that included a string quartet.

CMIF's exchanges with artists outside of the New Haven area—many of whom were then based in New York—is emblematic not only of the strength of community binding creative musicians from different parts of the country (although it certainly was that), but of New Haven's peculiar geographical situation and the ramifications that situation has had for the city's artistic life. About halfway between Boston to the northeast and New York City to the southwest, New Haven has often served as a point of transit for artists ultimately going elsewhere. This, combined with the status of Yale students as temporary residents—and consequently as temporary participants in local artistic communities—helped give the New Haven creative music community a transient character. Even during CMIF's peak, the creative music community saw a good deal of turnover as musicians moved around, many of them to New York. Thus although transience was one of the factors that helped make CMIF, it also ultimately helped to undo CMIF. By the time the organization was disbanded in 1984, many of its members had relocated to New York and beyond.

Not only the transience of the artists, but the effort needed to sustain such a self-reliant collective—what we now would call a DIY organization—helped bring about CMIF's end. That effort was considerable, and consisted of the work that had to go into writing grant applications and pursuing other fundraising activities, securing performance opportunities, and arranging for out-of-town artists' participation in CMIF activities. And all of this on top of maintaining the creative work that was the organization's reason for being in the first place. Naughton, talking to the New York City Jazz Record, remembered CMIF as something "time-consuming and difficult to sustain;" it isn't surprising that by 1984 he'd had enough of the administrative burden of keeping a non-profit organization viable.



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